Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!
Ersi Sotiropoulos, a virtuoso of postmodern Greek fiction, masters the short story in her collection, Landscape with Dog and Other Stories. Sotiropoulos, whose 2000 novel Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees, won both the national Greek book award and the book critics award, continues to use her deft sense of psychological insight and poetic language to give us portraits of the intimate and the abstract.
From the very first story, there is a familiarity that draws the reader in, that reminds of something comforting. But Sotiropoulos layers on top of that security a sense of foreboding. There is an ambiguity to her scenes and to her characters so that we are left to question our own instincts. She infuses the narrative of each story with a controlled terror that makes characters relationship seem like they could snap at any moment. Yet, she never gives us that release or makes it that easy for the reader, that definitive. The beginnings, middles and ends are blurry and we are left to decide where the story began and ended. This is not to say that the stories in this collection are not definitive, they are. They present the moments in life that fall into the grey area, that at one point may look white and then years later, pitch black. This requires a very deliberate prose, a deep understanding of narrative tension and skilled working knowledge of human behavior. Even more impressive is that Karen Emmerich’s translation let’s all of Sortiropoulos’ style and depth showcase itself in a sparse fluidity. The best way to understand what Sortiropoulos has to offer is to read this excerpt from “Christmas with Leo,” which is an woman addressing her dog after she tells him a story, but somehow it feels as if she is addressing the reader:
He isn’t satisfied with the denouement. He wants something more, I know. A happy ending or some big drama. But there’s nothing I can do. That something doesn’t exist. And I don’t want to lie to him. For a while we eye one another, tense as a dog and cat. Then he lays his head on my shoulder and sighs deeply. We sit there side by side, motionless, watching the lights on the tree.
And that’s how we feel as we read engaging story after engaging story, we come to terms with what she gives us, with what life gives us. Big things happen, but it’s in the moments, hours, days, and years later that we parse it out emotionally. She lets us see those moments when we know something is about to happen and illuminates in them the fear of the inevitable. All of this is done with an agile poetic hand that turns away from the lyrical but hits head on the dense and minimal, as shown in the story “The Woman” where she describes a couple making love upstairs, “their headboard hitting the wall rhythmically, monotonously. Tock, tock. An epilectic’s morse.” Details like that rise out of the narrative with a subtle and thunderous boom and it’s difficult to escape the oppressive quality of these stories.
Finding a convenient way out of her stories is difficult and that makes her challenging and simultaneously satisfying. Sotiropoulos gives us no directives. She leads us down a path but we never end up where we think we are going. The reader is expecting doom and is on edge waiting for it, like in “An Almost Guinea Fowl,” where a couple, Maro and Telis, invite over another couple to enjoy the guinea fowl that they bought which turns out to not to be guinea fowl, but some cheaper substitute. As the evening progresses, Telis threatens to tell the guests while they are in the nursery, tending to their crying infant:
“Tell them,” he said listlessly. “Tell them, if it’ll make you feel better.”
Maro started to cry, little sobs that kept getting louder. Her tears fell on the baby, who woke up and wriggled around in the crib. She picked him up and pressed his forehead to her wet cheeks. He was warm and very soft, almost spineless, and every so often his little body would give an irritated jerk as if shot through by an electric current. Suddenly he let out a loud shriek and hit her face with his head.
“I’m going back,” Telis said.
She stood there in the half darkness, with her back against the door and the baby in her arms. They were both crying, pressed up against each other, and the sound of their breathing, fitful and erratic, pierced the milky light of the room.
Scenes like this pull us along in search of a resolution. The couple in trouble, the dysfunctional mother and son, the depressed writer become fertile emotional landscapes that Sotiropoulos mines for fissures that happen long before the final break happens. It’s her acuity of the small breaks in relationships that drive this collection and make it fraught with an anxiety that is enervating and invigorating. Landscape with Dog and Other Stories lets us see what a consummate writer she is who has the power to capture the tiny moments of discomfort and doesn’t dare to give us answers, but to let us find our own way.
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